Human Rights Watch: U.S. laws defy basic rules of justice

New arrivals to the Deuel Vocational Institution are taken inside the prison near Tracy, Calif., Feb. 20, 2014.
New arrivals to the Deuel Vocational Institution are taken inside the prison near Tracy, Calif., Feb. 20, 2014.

Momentum to reduce mass incarceration continues to rise as a variety of U.S. laws that require disproportionately severe punishment defy basic rules of justice, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Legislators for years have passed laws that ignore other forms of punishment in favor of incarceration, according to Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution, a 36-page report published Tuesday. Nearly three decades of harsh sentencing laws have left the country with more than 2.2 million men and women behind bars, most for nonviolent crimes.

Penal criminal justice policies have been the preferred fix to a range of social problems for at least 30 years, the report said. The behavior includes drug trafficking, increases in illegal immigration and youth crime, growing economic inequality, and an eroded safety net. More than half – 53% – of inmates in state prisons with a sentence of at least a year serve time for a nonviolent offense, such as low-level drug dealing.

"The 'land of the free' has become a country of prisons," Jame Fellner, co-author of the report and senior adviser to the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes."

Youth are often tried and punished as if they were adults. In 2011, more than 95,000 adolescents younger than 18 were held in adult prisons across the country, according to the report.

For every 100,000 white males in the American population, 478 are in state or federal prison; for every 100,000 African-American males in the population, 3,023 are in prison.

But some legislators are rethinking the punishments to change the outcomes that long jail terms inflict on individuals, families, and communities. Congress is considering reform that would enhance judicial discretion for drug offenses and reduce certain mandatory drug sentences.

The organization released the report a week after a death row inmate experienced a heart attack during a botched execution in Oklahoma. The incident renewed the issue of human rights and executions both in the state and nationwide.